Back in 2004, I said of the introduction of the Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) regulations that “These new changes from Europe mean that employees now have a right to be told what's going on and a right to be heard. It should put a stop to the bolts from the blue…”

And when advice on the Regs was published on the Acas website, employers and employees were told that “information and consultation are the basic building blocks of every effective organisation … because they help you to manage change.”

But have we been proved right? Have the ICE Regs helped managers and employees create the right kind of voice arrangements, and what have we learned about employee voice for the future?

Many of you will be familiar with the recent Acas analysis of Workplace Employment Relations Studies (2004 and 2011), looking at the state of ‘joint consultative committees’ (JCCs) under the Regs. The headline findings show that in the period since the Regs, arrangements for consultation have not changed dramatically in Great Britian. In many areas we have seen a steady state, and in medium sized firms there has been some growth in JCCs, though there has also been a decline in joint consultative committees at the ‘higher level’, argubaly where some of the most significant decisions are made (falling from 29% to 20% between 2004 and 2011).

It seems a majority of managers still favour hearing employee views: in the 2011 WERS, 80% of managers (up from 72% in 2004) said they like to hear employee views before introducting change. But perhaps the nature of consultation has also changed. There are signs of a ‘shallower’ approach to consultation: managers increasingly say that they are using these committees less to seek feedback on a range of options (down from 45 to 39 per cent) and more to get feedback on a preferred management option (up from 9 per cent to 28 per cent).

We need to know more about the kind of consultative arrangements that work for employers and employees – to see how best to operate in the context of the Regulations in a way that offers mutual gains, and responds to the modern workplace. In the light of this it’s worth picking up on one or two issues that have been largely overlooked in recent discussions. The first concerns attitudes, and the second is about the impact of new technology and social media.

In terms of our attitudes, I think that effective consultation assumes a certain kind of mindset: all those involved need to recognise the benefits (and the parameters) of sharing information and collaborative working; and ensure that consultation truly involves listening to employee concerns. This means that suggestions are considered, and there is a dialogue and exchange around proposals. The Regs set the framework – it’s up to the individuals to determine the behaviours.

We must be honest: opening up the conversation in organisations does not mean that everything will be rosey in the garden. Indeed, it often means some of the tricky questions come to the surface. As Duncam Adam said in a Acas blog post last year, the process of consulation “necessarily produces conflicts and reveals tensions”. But overall the evidence suggests that despite these potential areas of friction, managers are seeing the benefits of consultation. WERS found that workplaces that were least affected by the recession were more likely to be actively looking to their employees for solutions; and that ‘active consultation’ in which employee views were sought before final decisions were made was linked with greater trust, and a sense that consultative arrangements were influential. The Acas report concluded that 'consultation can thrive when dealing with meaty issues'.

The second issue is how technology and the use of social media fit with our view of the process of consultation. For example, according to the WERS survey (van Wanrooy et al, 2013) managers increasingly have a preference for direct forms of communication, often at the press of a button: the greatest area of growth was in communication by email, rising from 35 to 49 per cent of workplaces. This kind of ongoing communication has its strengths – perhaps it reducing the ‘bolt out of the blue’ approach to decisions that I mentioned earlier – but I am less sure it holds quite the same value as the kind of two way communication and engagement that perhaps we envisaged under the ICE Regs.

Some people have argued that the problem with the ICE Regs was their complexity: although the intention was laudable the devil lay in the detail.  But I don’t think that the Regs were ever supposed to offer a complete answer to the question of employee voice and representation.

For my part, time has partially changed my perspective. I still see an optimum voice mechanism as one that embraces communication, consultation and negotiation. But these days, of course, any voice mechanism needs to use a variety of channels and representative structures to achieve the desired benefits for both employees and employers – everything from old fashioned sitting round the table to online forums. 

In an ideal world we would be able to look out of the window and know what to expect from what we see: rain when the clouds are heavy and grey and sunshine when the sky is blue. But the working world is not so straightforwad any more, with complex outsourcing and contractual arrangements typifiying many workpaces. And workers and managers expectations have changed, both in tems of the pace of decision making, and preferences for forms of engagement.

We know that employees want to have a voice at work. And our research around the ICE regs have taught us that while the quantity of voice and representation is very important, so too is the quality of voice. We need to rediscover a deeper understanding of employee voice – one that will help us to develop more effective and productive employment relationships in the future. From an Acas perspective, employee voice has recently been indentified as one of the seven levers of workplace productivity. So maybe now is the time to restart the debate.


Sir Brendan Barber is chair of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) Council